Freedom and festivity in the air on a landmark day

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am

'That is where we register. Then we move to the long table, where we collect the papers with the pictures of the candidates, which are called ballot papers,' says Subani Suryaji, 42, as he explains to his two children - Arya, five, and Erianto, seven - the voting procedure in Aceh's first direct vote for governor.

'Those screens are in place so that we can make our choice in private and, the two grey metal boxes, are where we insert the ballot papers. That man takes a print of people's thumb with the ink, so they cannot return and vote again.'

Wide-eyed Arya and Erianto follow their father's explanation attentively while holding their mother's hand.

'Yes, today is a special day,' says Mr Subani's wife, Intan, 33. 'The election first, and then, since nobody works, we can spend the rest of the day together, maybe at the beach.'

The mood is both calm and festive at the polling station on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Families go through the procedures together; young girls wear their best clothes, while young men linger, look and at times flirt.

Police officers sit inconspicuously in their cars as the day unfolds peacefully.

'It is all going very smoothly,' says Dahnul Linmas, 23, who studies economics at the local university but is volunteering to help at the ballot. 'Really no problems. I hope it is the same in the rest of the province. I am enjoying it very much.'

Perhaps those who enjoy the voting most are the elderly, who glow visibly on this landmark day.

This pesta democrasi, or this democratic party, as 71-year old Yusuf Husman described the day, seems to have set aside - at least for now - any hint of tension, whispered since former rebel group the Free Aceh Movement suffered an internal split and fielded two candidates for the province's top job. 'We will think about that tomorrow; today it doesn't matter,' he adds.

Rezka Kamilin, 23, a government officer, busy registering people for the vote, says the election is a true sign of peace, and that judging by the atmosphere, any future challenges can be resolved peacefully.

'You can see it all around. The local government has declared the day a holiday and people are eager to take part,' he says, confirming that most of the 426 people registered to vote at his station trickled in well before the 2pm deadline. 'This is a true sign of peace, and I am sure that any future problem will not lead to renewed violence.'

The sentiment is echoed by Liem Soei Liong, 62, an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who, although he has been based in Holland for the past 30 years, visits Indonesia frequently.

'In my past visits to Aceh I could feel an air of tension. The conflict was all around even if you did not see it. Now it is different. The air smells of peace; people no longer seem afraid,' he said.

'And this election is a real democratic pesta.'